The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua
(September 19, 1978.)
ANASTASIO SOMOZA, President, Nicaragua: I have a moral responsibility to all the people who follow me, and even the people who adverse me. That is why I`m sticking around here until we can devise an election and hand over the power to the man who wins.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Nicaragua`s strongman President, Anastasio Somoza, in September. Today, against all the odds, he`s still "sticking around." Good evening. Five months ago it looked as if the days of President Somoza were numbered. From all sides came predictions that his one-man rule could not survive the weight of rebellion. But the West Point-trained Somoza wasn`t giving up that easily. Here`s what he told us when we interviewed him five months ago from his presidential office in Managua:
SOMOZA: Well, there are two possibilities in Nicaragua. One is that I hand over the government to a duly elected man whether he be pro-Somoza or against Somoza, on the basis of my democratic ideals. And the other one would be if I chickened out and ran out and left a power vacuum in the face of an opposition that has no leadership, it has no organization, and certainly has no control over its forces. For if I were the leader of this coup and I had control of the forces, I would certainly have told my people to stop fighting because it`s a lost cause. On the contrary, they have let these people fight without any instructions or without any guidance from the leadership of the opposition. Now, can you imagine a country left without any leadership in the hands of an army without a leader? It would be chaos.
MacNEIL: Today President Somoza is still firmly installed, and tonight we examine what happened: why did his opposition melt away, and what part did Washington play? Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the situation at the time of that interview was this: some 1,500 Nicaraguans had just been killed in bloody street fighting between anti-Somoza rebels and the government`s National Guard, which stood accused of indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians. Business and labor joined in the rebellion against Somoza with a widespread general strike. Somoza was also being assailed in the international press and international forums. He was believed to be a goner, and an opposition coalition prepared to take over. The Organization of American States began a mediation effort to facilitate the transition; the United States was one of the mediating nations. But now, after three months of talking, those negotiations are considered dead, General Somoza is considered stronger than when it all began; his opposition, torn with its own infighting, weaker.
Here representing one element of the opposition is Father Miguel D`Escoto, a Catholic priest who has been involved in several anti Somoza movements -- the Group of Twelve, the Broad Opposition Front, and now a new one called the Patriotic Front. Father, what`s your assessment of what happened, why President Somoza didn`t go like everyone thought he would?
Father MIGUEL D`ESCOTO: Well, I think that the basic reason why Somoza is still in power is because Somoza is the type of man that he is; he`s a total and complete cynic who for the sake of staying in power would not blink an eye at having to massacre his entire population. Over the last six months, according to the more reliable sources, including the Red Cross, over 5,000 people have been massacred in Nicaragua.
LEHRER: 5,000 people?
D`ESCOTO: 5,000 people. You spoke of 1,500 people, and that is also a figure that is sometimes heard, but I would say it`s absolutely the most conservative estimate. But even that is a huge number of people. And not only have the people been massacred; some towns -- for example, Esteli -- has almost been entirely demolished. In others it is partially demolished. However, Somoza, as I say, is not the type of man, for example, like the Shah of Iran, for whom there came a point when he said, Look, if I`m going to stay here any longer I`m going to have to kill many, many more people. His army wouldn`t go along with it, they said that they wouldn`t continue killing their Moslem brothers. But the Nicaraguan situation is different.
LEHRER: Father, what happened to the mediation efforts? Why did they fail?
D`ESCOTO: The mediation efforts failed because the whole intent of the thing was not really to bring about or to help bring about a good solution for Nicaragua. The United States came to Nicaragua not because of concern for the bloodshed that had taken place in that country but first and above all to ensure a continued control of our political, social and economic development.
LEHRER: You were a member of one group of the coalition which declined to participate in the mediation after a while, is that correct?
D`ESCOTO: That`s right, we pulled out after three weeks. We should have pulled out perhaps before that but we tried to give it a chance, and when it was evident to us that it was not really a mediation at all but an attempt at shameless interventionism, we decided to come out of it.
LEHRER: Five months ago, as we heard, President Somoza told us about the lack of leadership and unified effort on the part of your opposition movement; some more objective sources have also said the same thing, that you all were leaderless, going off in many different directions. Is that still the case?
D`ESCOTO: No; it is true that for many years and because of the type of repression under which we had been living the opposition had not really jelled. It was splintered in many little groups. However, in the best part of this last year the opposition was coming together and had attained degrees of unity never before seen in Nicaragua. This was the case until September, let`s say. It was not all that perfect, but it was better than anything we had before. Now, the mediation had as one of its results that it really split the opposition that was in FAO, because they introduced now a new element into anti-Somoza feeling. Now you were either anti-Somoza, but in a sell-out sort of way -- anti-Somoza, but waiting for the United States to dictate what we should do next -or you were truly anti-Somoza, which entails necessarily to be a nationalist. And so the opposition then split. But as a result -- I mean, the FAO split. There were other groups very important in the opposition that were not participating in FAO. And of course, you must not forget the Frente Sandinista...
LEHRER: That`s the...
D`ESCOTO: The broad-based opposition front.
LEHRER: Broad-based opposition front.
D`ESCOTO: That was the one that was involved in the talks with the mediation team. And then you had the United People`s Movement, and then you had other organizations that were in neither of those two blocs; and now they have come together, though, in a new organization called the Patriotic Front.
LEHRER: Is it going to hold together?
D`ESCOTO: It`s going to hold together, it`s already created, it`s much more stronger and representative than the FAO ever was, and we have great hope in its being able to hold together and to lead the civic and political fight to overthrow the dynasty in the near future.
LEHRER: Thank you, Father. Robin?
MacNEIL: Now for the view of Mr. Somoza`s own government on why he`s survived. Luis Pallais is vice president of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Deputies, their congress; the editor and publisher of the government newspaper Novedades; and also a first cousin of President Somoza. Mr. Pallais was one of the principal hostages held by the Sandinista guerrillas when they occupied the national palace last August. Mr. Pallais, Father D`Escoto says your president is still in power because he`s a total cynic and is prepared to massacre his people with his own military power. What is your answer to that?
LUIS PALLAIS: Well, I think that Father is biased and Father has his own opinion, and I would like to go into that later; but I think that President Somoza is in power because of one simple reason: be cause he has the majority of the Nicaraguan people, because the Liberal Party is a party that has done all the social advances and labor laws and socialistic laws in Nicaragua, and because the people of Nicaragua did not revolt and were not in the streets like they were in Iran, and because we have an army which is very well organized and which is there, ready to defend the constitution of the republic. Now, I would like to comment on some of the things that Father has said. One of the things, first of all, that President Somoza, in order to look for the people, proposed a plebiscite in my country to judge or vote whether he should continue or not on the elected term for which he was constitutionally elected until 1981, and the group of Fathers-- D`Escoto was one of the first that didn`t want a plebiscite, they wanted bloodshed. I don`t know why, maybe the Father has his own ideologies. I heard Father D`Escoto once say on Nicaraguan television and radio that his ideas of men in Latin America were Che Guevara and Father Camilo Torres, the Communist priest that died in Colombia. And I was very surprised because I felt that he as a Catholic priest should have had as the ideal of a man Christ. I think that the case of Iran and Nicaragua, if you want to compare them, is a big difference. In Nicaragua you have a constitutionally elected leader for a term; in Nicaragua you didn`t have the people come into the streets against the army and against the government. You didn`t have the thousands of people -- even they tried to make rallies and they have never had more than 10,000 or 12,000 people.
MacNEIL: Can I ask you this, Mr. Pallais: it is said in some opposition quarters, and some Americans believe it, that President Somoza didn`t really take the negotiations, the mediation thing, seriously, he was just buying time in the hopes that the opposition would disintegrate. What is your answer to that?
PALLAIS: Oh, that`s absolutely untrue, sir. President Somoza and the Liberal Party proposed a plebiscite, and we`ll go to any plebiscite at any time while it`s just right. Now, we were against, and the Liberal Party, a proposal made by the commission that we should have intervention and that they should violate our country and our sovereignty.
MacNEIL: They wanted the OAS to oversee the plebiscite and to have no voter registration for the plebiscite.
PALLAIS: Yes. Before the commission in the document of the 20th, they said that they wanted to control everything in the voting. We answered them in saying that we wanted a national organization of a plebiscite with the international supervision completely of the plebiscite; they agreed on that. But they don`t want to have the voting with preregistration, and they don`t want the voting with the right question, and they don`t want the voting, they want President Somoza and his family to go out of the country during the process, which is ridiculous. No candidate can make campaign and ask for the people`s vote while he`s been taken away out of the country. I don`t think any Senator, any Representative, not even a candidate for President in this country or any other country, would go and would accept that international organization where mediators would want him not to make the campaign for his own people to vote.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Father, how about that? Do you favor bloodshed over elections?
D`ESCOTO: I certainly don`t. I don`t think any -- the only ones who favor bloodshed are the ones who have been apologizing for the deeds of the Somoza dynasty over the last half a century, the ones who defend Somoza. Somoza is one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants that we have ever had in Latin America.
LEHRER: But you did oppose elections, did you not, Father?
D`ESCOTO: We did not oppose elections. The fact is that you have to understand the history of elections under the Somoza dynasty. The Somoza dynasty has made a mockery of the electoral process from the very, very beginning. And this your own American scholars who have studied the Nicaraguan situation have attested to.
LEHRER: Mr. Pallais?
PALLAIS: Well, I would say this: I am very sorry that Father -he`s talking about fifty years of the Somoza dynasty. I could say that I am a very good friend of his family; his father was chief of protocol, ambassador to Guatemala, to the Vatican, to Italy, to France, to Spain, to Japan, and he`s against what his father believed for many, many years. His father was even one of, the people that had, before we passed the law of national recuperation...
LEHRER: You`re talking about the Father`s father.
PALLAIS: His father. So he`s attacking also, as I say, his own family. His father has been a friend of the family and of the government and a liberal, and I think that he as a priest should have more charity and have more love, because I don`t think that you can say somebody is a tyrant that has proven he hasn`t been a tyrant but is there elected by the people of Nicaragua. And we offered a plebiscite, the President offered a plebiscite, and we have elections. We have freedom of the press, we have complete liberties in the country, there`s no state of seige; and not only that, we have told the OAS if you want a plebiscite come here and supervise it.
D`ESCOTO: Well, it is true that my father has held diplomatic posts in this government; but that only proves that I perhaps know more than some people may think about what I`m talking about. He doesn`t want to accept, he objects to my appreciation or my judgment over what has happened in Nicaragua, and I would say that I submit for his consideration, if he hasn`t read it yet, the conclusions in the Inter-American Human Rights report on Nicaragua of the Organization of American States, where in two pages they summarize the type of tyranny, the type of irrespect for human life, the genocide that has been systematically perpetrated against our people, and they also have a little thing to say about the electoral process, that it has been wiped off the map in Nicaragua.
LEHRER: Gentlemen, we must move on, but we`ll be back. Robin?
MacNEIL: Let`s now turn to the American perspective on Nicaragua and American involvement in the mediation efforts. This country`s concern over Nicaragua springs from two basic facts: America`s long involve ment with and support for the Somoza family, which has ruled for more than thirty years; and anxiety in Washington that instability in Nicaragua could infect neighboring Central American states and possibly open the doors to Communist penetration. One man who`s been following events in Nicaragua and Washington closely is Richard Millett, professor of Central American history at Southern Illinois University and the author of many books and articles on the Somoza family.
Dr. Millett, you were on this program in November and you said then that you had very little faith in the mediation effort. Why did it fail?
RICHARD MILLETT: Well, I think to begin with it was founded on some very insecure premises. There was the assumption that General Somoza was genuinely interested in reaching an accommodation with the opposition; I don`t think that was ever true. That he would under some circumstances risk the loss of power; I don`t believe that was true. I think we also believed that there was a good democratic solution in a moderate way which could be made acceptable to all parties, that all the issues were basically subject to compromise; I don`t think that was true. A great example would be the family`s total control over the military. Either they controlled it or they didn`t; they were not willing to consider giving up the control, the opposition could not conceive of them remaining in control, and it`s very hard to see how you could compromise a point like this.
MacNEIL: Was the United States genuinely pushing Somoza to resign?
MILLETT:I think at one point we certainly were.
MacNEIL: Did we have a change of heart?
MILLETT:I think part of the problem was that while we were pushing him, it never was quite clear what we would do if he resisted our pressures. And I think he became quite well aware of this, and in a sense called our bluff.
MacNEIL: It`s claimed by some people that Washington`s concern for human rights in Nicaragua is overshadowed by its fear of letting the Communists in -- for instance, through the Sandinista guerrillas. Is that a good reading of Washington`s two conflicting motives?
MILLETT:I think Washington is divided on this. I think there are some who stress the fear of the Sandinistas; I think there are some who stress the human rights thing. But I might say that one reason perhaps that the pressure on Nicaragua has lessened is that I think that the U.S. Government has decided that the prospects of a Sandinista victory are much more remote than they thought they were in September.
MacNEIL: Incidentally, is the fear, do you believe, of the Sandinistas letting in the Communists or being Communists themselves or being the thin end of the wedge for Castro -- is that a justified fear, from your knowledge?
MILLETT: Not really, I don`t think they have the military capacity to take over totally. Their own documents have talked about a broad-based social democratic government rather than some sort of a dictatorship run by themselves; so I think it`s very much an exaggerated fear. But again, I think a prolongation of the dynasty could make it somewhat more real.
MacNEIL: Washington is reported to be preparing some new move on Nicaragua. What do you expect that to be?
MILLETT: I expect the military group, which has been sitting around doing nothing since military aid was cut off...
MacNEIL: It consists of only four men.
MILLETT: Only four men -- to be pulled out. They were considering withdrawing the ambassador; I believe -- although I can`t speak authoritatively -- that they have dropped this, feeling that they should remain in contact with both the government and opposition; at least, that`s their justification. So I think it`ll be simply symbolic things, maybe some further cuts in aid, attempt again to go to the OAS, and certainly withdrawal of the symbolic military group.
MacNEIL: What is your opinion of that as a policy, or as the next move?
MILLETT: I think it`s ineffective. I don`t think it will have any influence on anyone. I think, again, it will simply emphasize that the U.S. doesn`t really seem to have the will to push its desires through to any conclusion here, that it wants to look as if it`s on the side of the angels without taking any real concrete action to bring a more desirable result to pass.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Another view of the U.S. role in what`s been happening from a man who represented the United States in Nicaragua from 1975-77 as the U.S. ambassador. He`s James Theberge, now president of a foreign policy research group known as the Institute for Conflict and Policy Studies. `Mr. Ambassador, do you feel the United States has bungled it in Nicaragua?
JAMES THEBERGE: No, I don`t think that it`s been bungled, because the question assumes that the U.S. has decisive control over events in Nicaragua, and that is not true. The State Department comes in for a lot of criticism for the way it manages our diplomacy. I think in the case of Nicaragua it`s difficult to think what else the department could have done besides trying to establish some kind of a mediation process which would facilitate a democratic transition, elections, and a termination of the violence and strife.
LEHRER: Do you agree with Mr. Millett that what essentially happened was that the United States did push Somoza to resign and he called their bluff, and this was the end result of that?
THEBERGE: Well, there`s no doubt that a great deal of pressure was, exerted on President Somoza to go along with the mediation and in effect have a plebiscite; resignation, I thought, was never in the cards. It`s very difficult for one country to force the head of a state to resign just by saying, We want you to go. There is a great deal of, I think, unrealistic thinking on the part of people outside -when I say outside, who don`t really understand the real influence that the U.S. has in Nicaragua, that it`s really quite difficult to influence and control events in any country, even a small country where we have a great deal of influence.
LEHRER: What about the point that Robin asked Mr. Millett about, which is the fear that Nicaragua, without Somoza, might become a leftist Cuba-type situation? Do you share that concern, or do you agree with Mr. Millett that it`s nothing to worry about?
THEBERGE:I don`t really believe that these sort of polar options, these two options, are the only options; that is to say, continuation of the Somoza regime under more or less the prevailing conditions, or a Sandinista-led government with civilian cooperation with the Sandinistas. I don`t think those are the only two options. I think there is another option which would attempt to bring in what I call the moderate, moderate-center, moderate-center-right, center-left opposition, and get agreement on elections. And it seems to me that the department`s efforts to bring about elections -- although I would have disagreed on certain tactics -- I think that was essentially a sensible approach.
LEHRER: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes; Mr. Pallais, what happens now in Nicaragua? Does Mr. Somoza just stay there and we wait till 1981 and then have new elections?
PALLAIS: Well, I think that Ambassador Theberge has said it very clearly; the only solution in a democratic country is elections, and Mr. Somoza is elected in a term for, the first of May 1981.So I think that we should have elections, and maybe we can find a formula to give credibility; and let`s say, maybe supervised by the OAS or some international force. Because we, the Liberal Party, think we have the majority. Let us try. We did the same thing with the plebiscite...
MacNEIL: But you don`t want to have the elections before 1981.
PALLAIS: Well, if the plebiscite is accepted with logic, with registration, and with the right question and with Somoza there in person, and with the other things that we have proposed, we will take a plebiscite also.
MacNEIL: Father D`Escoto, what do you think is going to happen now in Nicaragua? Are you resigned to waiting till 1981?
D`ESCOTO: Absolutely not. Let me say that Mr. Pallais is fond of saying many things that are totally inaccurate, totally untrue. For example, he said a little bit before that I had once on the radio in Nicaragua spoken about Father Camilo Torres or Che Guevara. Let me say that I have never ever, on television or on the radio, ever mentioned those people, regardless of what I think about them. He talks about Somoza being an elected president; he`s not an elected president. He is a usurper of power.
MacNEIL: Could you come back, since we have very little time, to my question? What`s going to happen next? Are you going to just resign yourself to waiting till 1981?
D`ESCOTO: We absolutely are not going to be resigned, we are going to continue ourselves in the civic and political front with the Patriotic Front, and I`m sure that you can expect the people of Nicaragua, with their military vanguard, the Frente Sandinista Liberacion Nacional, you are going to be hearing from them soon. And mostly likely, with the continued support that has never really stopped from the United States, Somoza is going to perhaps repeat what he did again.
MacNEIL: All right. Mr. Millett, what options does the United States have, faced with those two possible alternatives?
MILLETT: Not very many good ones. I think I would agree with something that Ambassador Theberge has said, that the power of the U.S. is often exaggerated in situations like this. We`ve always found it terribly difficult to deal with regimes which proclaim loudly their loyalty to us and their opposition to Communism while at the same time they systematically plunder and brutalize their own people.. And this is an issue with which we really haven`t come to grips. It`s an issue which faces us throughout Central America. At this point the traditional options have basically run out, and it`s very difficult to think of new ones. The U.S. can continue to show its opposition, it can continue to suspend military aid; but its ability to shape ongoing events has certainly been greatly diminished.
MacNEIL: Mr. Ambassador, what do you think are the consequences of instability or unrest in the neighboring countries of Latin America if the situation drifts on the way it is? Is that a major concern of yours, or in Washington?
THEBERGE: Well, I think it is a concern; I don`t think it`s what I would call a major concern inside our government. Quite obviously there has been some spill over of the revolutionary violence in Nicaragua to other countries; that is to say, the morale of the revolutionary groups in the neighboring countries has been raised by what looked to be or appeared to be in the late summer and early fall of last year, a real possibility of using force to dislodge the Somoza family, or at least the Somoza government, from power So there is an interrelationship between what happens in Nicaragua and what happens in neighboring countries. And if Nicaragua is unstable, that will tend to make neighboring countries unstable as revolutionary activity intensifies.
MacNEIL: Briefly, Mr. Millett, how serious a concern is that to you?
MILLETT: I think it`s a concern; it`s a concern, certainly, to the governments around the area. It`s a concern not only to the governments on the right, like that of El Salvador and Guatemala, but to the democratic governments in the region, like that of Costa Rica and further south to Venezuela.
MacNEIL: We have to end it there. Thank you very much. Thank you all in Washington, Mr. Pallais, Father D`Escoto and Mr. Ambassador; good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: And thanks, Dr. Millett. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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- This episode features a update on Nicaragua. The guests are Richard Millett, Miguel D'Escoto, Lius Pallais, James Theberge. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua,” 1979-02-06, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-db7vm43k0m.
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- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-db7vm43k0m